How to Manage Chemical Spills: A Complete Guide

Originally published February 3, 2021 02:53:16 AM
Hazardous chemical spills can occur in a variety of different workplaces across Australia, potentially harming people, property and the environment.

This guide outlines how to:

  1. Plan for the prevention of chemical spills, including implementing practical controls to ensure chemicals are appropriately stored and handled
  2. Respond to spills when they occur, including risk assessment, spill containment, clean-up and reporting

 Industrial chemicals in Australia - Source:

REMEMBER: Under the WHS Act, an uncontrolled chemical spill or leakage is classed as a dangerous and notifiable incident. The regulator in your state or territory must be notified in writing as soon as possible following a chemical spill.

Who Should Use This Guide to Chemical Spill Management?

This guide applies to any workplace that stores or handles hazardous chemicals onsite. These can include flammable, corrosive or toxic liquids or compressed (pressurised) gases.

The guide is for people who work in industries such as the following examples:

  • Chemical manufacturers storing and handling industrial chemicals
  • Office buildings storing heavy-duty cleaning products
  • Automotive businesses storing motor oils and fuel
  • Farming businesses using and storing fuel and agricultural chemicals
  • Fuel service stations storing petrol, diesel, oil and gas
  • Food manufacturers producing milk products, fruit juices, etc.
  • Fast food restaurants and outlets using and storing cooking oil
  • Research laboratories storing and handling hazardous chemicals

Personnel responsible for workplace health and safety or site management can use this resource to better understand chemical management procedures and develop a suitable chemical spill response plan.


A chemical spill kit is a vital component of a chemical spill response plan

What Causes a Chemical Spill?

Accidents happen. But some chemical spills are accidents waiting to happen. Which is why prevention is one of the most important parts of your workplace’s chemical management program.

But spills occur in even the most well-prepared workplace environments. Which is why a tailored chemical spill response plan involving appropriate spill containment and clean-up equipment is also essential.

Developing and promoting an understanding among all workplace personnel of why chemical spills happen and what causes spill accidents to occur is a logical way to approach chemical management.

What are Contributing Factors to Chemical Spills in the Workplace?

Consider the following workplace scenarios where an avoidable chemical spill occurs due to various possible contributing factors.

A container of hazardous chemicals stacked on top of several other identical containers falls to the ground and ruptures, spilling an uncontrolled quantity of dangerous chemical that presents a significant threat to the health and safety of personnel and harm to the environment.
  • Stock levels of hazardous chemicals are in excess of what is able to be stored safely and expediently upon delivery
  • Insufficient safe chemical storage capacity
  • Breakdown in purchasing and delivery procedures, e.g., delivery of larger quantities of chemicals than are actually required for that workplace
  • Lack of available personnel trained in the handling of chemical goods, e.g., due to early/late delivery by supplier when required personnel not rostered on
  • Inadequate supervision of personnel, e.g., chemical deliveries not stored in designated area immediately after delivery
  • Plant equipment not kept in good working order, e.g., forklifts, trolleys, mechanical lifting devices
An uncontrolled quantity of a hazardous chemical is spilled on the workplace floor during a decanting process transferring the chemical from one container to another, endangering the health and safety of the personnel involved and potentially harming the environment.
  • Bunded containment equipment was either not installed, overloaded or used incorrectly, e.g., used for storing non-hazardous substances or stacked incorrectly
  • Lack of suitable drip trays with raised edges to contain spills
  • Lack of suitable chemical safety cabinets with inbuilt spill sumps for larger quantities of hazardous chemicals
  • Lack of bunded drum dollies for moving chemicals around the warehouse
  • Personnel tasked with the decanting activity were not adequately trained for the job or were not adequately supervised
  • Inadequate inspection procedures to identify damage to equipment and use-by-dates in a timely manner

What is Bad Practice Chemical Storage and Handling?

The following images demonstrate how not to store and handle hazardous chemicals.


How not to store chemicals - Bad practice examples related to storing and handling liquids that could pollute the environment. Source: EPA Victoria

What is Good Practice Chemical Storage and Handling?

The following images demonstrate best practice examples of how to store and handle hazardous chemicals.


How to store chemicals - Good practice examples related to storing and handling liquids. Source: EPA Victoria

Why Implement Chemical Storage, Handling and Spill Management?

Activities undertaken by state governments, including the various Environmental Protection Authorities (EPAs), have identified the potential impacts on air, water and land posed by liquid chemical storage, handling and spill management at industrial locations across the country.

For example, in New South Wales, an environmental compliance program completed in 2006 and focusing on the activity of liquid chemical storage, handling and spill management reported several findings:

  • Poor chemical management practices contributed to several major environmental incidents and premises have been prosecuted in relation to chemical transfer and storage.
  • Earlier audit programs made it clear that licensees (of workplaces licensed to store and handle hazardous chemicals) needed to improve their awareness of the risks relating to the management of chemicals.
  • Licensing changes were necessary to ensure licensees are required to develop, implement and regularly update emergency response plans.
  • Licensing changes were needed mandating suitable control measures such as high/low alarms, control valves and one-way valves on vessels containing liquid chemicals

The program produced three reports - including a compliance report and a review of best practice and regulation - that facilitate knowledge sharing between various regulators, including local councils, the workplace health and safety regulator and state departments.

A suite of educational and training resources were also developed, including Storing and Handling Liquids: Environmental Protection trainer's manual and kit to “help industry and local government to better manage environmental, legal and safety responsibilities relating to liquids.”

The kit includes sections on legal obligations, site management, incident management and spill response

How to Define a Minor or Major Chemical Spill

A chemical spill is either classified as a minor or major spill, depending on various factors such as the volume spilt, the location of the spill, and how hazardous the substance is.

What is a Minor Chemical Spill?

A minor chemical spill is classified as a spill that can be effectively cleaned up by an individual person or work crew. For example, a few millilitres of cleaning chemicals are spilt when decanting into portable containers. Although the risk from industrial strength cleaning chemicals can be high, if the volume is small enough to be easily neutralised and removed, then it is considered a minor spill.

What is a Major Chemical Spill?

A major chemical spill is far more serious and generally necessitates the immediate evacuation of the area concerned, if not the entire premises. For example, the uncontrolled release of flammable liquid fuel from a container in an unventilated, enclosed area. If the volume of escaping fuel and subsequent fumes becomes large enough, the risk of ignition and harm to people and property becomes high.

Consider an incident as a major spill if the following criteria can be applied:

  1. QUANTITY- The spill involves more than:

    a) 100 millilitres or 10 grams of a highly hazardous chemical (such as a carcinogen); or

    b) 1 litre or 100 grams of a volatile or flammable solvent, reactive or corrosive (acid or base) liquid or solid.

  2. HAZARD- The hazardous chemical:

    a) presents an immediate threat to human health and safety or the environment;

    b) is unknown; or

    c) is an immediate fire hazard, such as an uncontrolled gas leak.

  3. LOCATION- The chemical is:

    a) Outside the premises or the area where the substance is generally handled; and/or

    b) There are no suitably trained personnel available to clean up the spill.

NOTE: Some especially dangerous substances, such as mercury or highly corrosive acids, are considered as major spills at volumes less than 100 mL.

Use a Decision Tree Flowchart to Identify Minor or Major Spills

If a chemical spill occurs in your workplace or somewhere else, refer to the chemical spill decision tree flowchart to step through the process of deciding if the incident should be classified as a minor spill or a major spill.

How to Respond to Chemical Spills

Responding to liquid chemical spills quickly and effectively is crucial if you are to minimise potential harm to people and the environment. Once you have determined whether the incident is a minor or major spill, you can move forward with your incident management and spill response plan.

A major spill may constitute an emergency and require urgent response and even the need for emergency services to attend the scene. A small-scale minor spill can generally be dealt with by onsite personnel. Whatever the severity of the incident, appropriate and adequate incident response is vital to ensure harm to people and the environment is minimised.

Poor incident management could, for example, lead to untrained personnel flushing spilt materials down stormwater drains, jeapordising the health of both people and the environment.

“Each site is different, and the issues and responses required will vary accordingly. The degree of incident planning that you need to undertake at your site will depend on the types of liquids that you store and the quantities.” EPA Victoria, Liquid storage and handling guidelines (2018)

Regulators such as the state government EPAs recommend your incident management plan follows a response process similar to the following sequence in the event of a spill.

Contain the Spill
Step 1
A. Assess the risk the spill poses to people, the environment and property.
B. Determine the type of liquid material, the quantity spilt (and whether the spill is ongoing) and if there are any human or animal casualties.
C. Ensure you and any other responders are wearing appropriate PPE so you can safely respond the the spill.
D. Refer to the relevant Safety Data Sheet (SDS) to quickly identify any hazards associated with the liquid spilt - these documents should be kept onsite in a weather-proof document storage box.
SDS document holder
Install a secure, weather-proof SDS document holder in a suitable location
Step 2
A. Confine the spill to reduce the area being contaminated and lessen the spill’s impact.
B. Use the appropriate spill containment kit, including any additional PPE, neutralising agents, absorbent material, containers, brooms, physical barriers and other tools as required - Emergency Spill Kits are specifically tailored to deal with chemical spills
C. To most effectively contain the spill, distribute the spill control and absorbent materials around and over the entire spill area, working from the outside and circling towards the inside.
D. Where possible, spills should be covered during rainfall so that the rainfall drainage doesn’t compromise the clean-up activities and contaminate the surrounding environment.
Universal Spill Kit
Install a Universal spill kits are a general-purpose spill kit for most common spills
Stop the Spill
Step 3
A. Once the spill has been contained, stop the leak. If safe to do so, stop the spill at its source. For instance, set right a drum that has tipped over, plug a hole that is leaking liquid, or switch off a pump or compressor that is accelerating the spill.
B. Contact emergency services immediately on Triple-Zero if the spill involves a hazardous substance (such as a flammable or toxic substance) or if you suspect that the spill will escape to the environment.
C. If appropriate, decant any remaining liquid into a secondary container.
D. Ensure all responders are careful not to step in the spill.
Portable collapsible bund
Install a Portable collapsible bunds can be used for fast and easy secondary spill containment
Step 4
A. Re-assess the situation before commencing the clean-up operation to ensure the spill is fully under control.
Clean-Up the Spill
Step 5
A. Clean up the spill, being sure to include all contaminated materials, including any waste water used in the clean-up.
Step 6
A. Ensure correct disposal of all contaminated waste. Make sure that any contaminated absorbent materials and other equipment used to clean-up the spill are disposed of appropriately to avoid further environmental damage.
B. Identify used absorbent materials and other equipment used to clean-up spills that must be disposed of at a legal facility or collected by an authorised waste management provider.
C. Used absorbent materials containing contaminated liquids hazardous chemicals cannot be disposed of in a general waste bin.
D. Ensure correct disposal of all contaminated waste. Make sure that any contaminated absorbent materials and other equipment used to clean-up the spill are disposed of appropriately to avoid further environmental damage.
Step 7
A. Ensure all the personnel involved with the spill clean-up are fully decontaminated.
B. Make sure all PPE and equipment used to clean-up the spill is also fully decontaminated.
C. Ensure the affected site itself is also clean, safe and fully decontaminated.
D. Check PPE, equipment, drain covers and spill kit items for damage and permanent contamination and dispose of accordingly.
E. Replenish stocks of PPE, equipment and spill kits as required.
Oil and fuel spill kit
Replenish stocks of used PPE and spill kit items
Report the Spill
Step 8
A. Record and log the spill incident using the appropriate reporting mechanism and ensure it is reported to management.
B. De-brief all personnel involved in the incident and ensure they are all clear about their respective roles so they can adjust their response in any future incidents as required.
C. Investigate the cause of the spill and make any appropriate changes to your chemical management procedures and chemical spill response plan, including, for example, the location of your spill response equipment.

Next Steps

Trust chemical management specialists STOREMASTA to help keep your workplace safe by working with you to:

  1. Conduct a risk assessment;
  2. Develop chemical management procedures; and
  3. Develop a chemical spill response plan tailored specifically to your workplace.

You should also download this FREE eBook - How to manage the risk of Hazardous Chemicals in the workplace - detailing the risk assessment process, explaining how to assess each chemical hazard you encounter at work and how to decide on suitable control measures to eliminate or minimise the risk.


Walter Ingles

Walter Ingles Compliance Specialist

Walter is STOREMASTA’s Dangerous Goods Storage Specialist. He helps organisations reduce risk and improve efficiencies in the storage and management of dangerous goods and hazardous chemicals.

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